It’s hard to misbehave around Fred Spence.
Spence is Police Athletic League Academy’s no-nonsense chief executive officer, a disciplinarian who cuts an imposing figure on campus.
He runs a tight ship. He’s the one with the gifts and high praise whenever students do well. He’s the one with the sharp words and harsh ultimatums when they don’t.
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“Every kid has to know they have to live with me,” Spence says. “As a school, there are certain behaviors we do not accept. I have to reinforce that.”
There’s a lot at stake.
It’s five days before the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test that measures a student’s skills in math, reading, writing and science in third through 12th grades. Third-graders who fail face being held back for another year. High school students who fail risk not graduating on time. Since the academy is a charter school, there is the ever-present threat of being shut down if it doesn’t meet federal education standards.
Spence is hoping all the hard work he, his staff and students at the charter school have done will soon pay off again.
A year ago, the struggling charter school made an about-face, turning from an F school to a C.
Sandra Molignano’s third-grade class outshone many other students in the school — and throughout the district — with their impressive gains last year. Eighty-four percent of her third-graders passed reading, compared to 35 percent a year earlier. Ninety-five percent passed math, up from 59 percent.
“Miss M,” as she’s known in school, wants to duplicate that effort with another class this year.
Since August, Miss M has been helping her new students set goals and figuring out how they are going to pass the tests.
There’s the pool party at G.T. Bray park that Miss M has promised the class.
Then there’s the cash prize — up to $200 for each student — if they pass with flying colors.
In the beginning, the struggle
For years, the PAL Academy racked up bad grades and an even worse reputation. PAL started out as an alternative school; former Manatee County Sheriff Charlie Wells was one of the founders.
Students struggled with school and their test scores; teachers fought low morale. The school’s finances were in disarray, and administrators came and went.
In its fifth year of facing federal sanctions under the No Child Left Behind Act, the board of directors was forced to turn the school around.
The alternative: losing the charter and shutting down.
So they hired Spence — a motivational speaker, former coach and high school assistant principal — to helm the school.
Spence hired Latrina Singleton, a former coworker from his years in Sarasota schools, to run the academic side of things.
Then they began to rebuild the school, firing all the teachers and making them reapply for their jobs. Most wanted to stay, but only six were allowed to return.
Spence and Singleton promised the Manatee County school board, which approves the district’s charter school contracts, that the school would be transformed.
“They were getting ready to shut the school down. The test scores were terrible, and we were all under pressure,” Spence recalled. “We restructured everything — our approach to working with the kids, the curriculum, the expectation of our teachers, kids and parents.”
Once the plan was laid out, the real work began.
Teachers who fit
Spence knew he needed a certain breed of teachers, ones who understand “it’s not what you teach, it’s what they learn.”
Like Miss M.
“She can be a bulldog sometimes, but she’s a good teacher,” said Jyrah Jones, 10, while she eyed her teacher from a distance in the classroom.
Miss M was one of the teachers Spence kept.
“I work best with kids who think they can’t learn,” she says.
Teaching is Miss M’s third career. She spent eight years in the Army, then raised her daughter while working as a legal secretary for 15 years in Boston.
She moved to Manatee County in 2000 and started teaching at Orange Ridge/Bullock Elementary, a traditional public school.
The school did not renew her contract after she taught there less than two years. Differences in philosophy was how she summed up her experience there. So she went to PAL.
Her will for her students to succeed, regardless of their backgrounds, is a formidable tool. Her students feel it. They have little time for anything else other than school work.
Jyrah says she had to cut down her “drama” in class. The outgoing third-grader did not like school much. Kindergarten was fun, but first grade was boring, she says.
Third grade, in another classroom, was also a struggle. She often acted out.
Now, after being transferred to Miss M’s class, Jyrah says she has no time for misbehaving.
“If not for her, I wouldn’t know anything other than my (multiplication) timetable,” Jyrah said.
Dortavien Billy, 10, knows what that feels like.
He thought school was a breeze and didn’t like being a student. So he showed it.
Miss M didn’t have time for that. “Miss M started pushing me,” he said. “She pushed me to be the student I can be now.”
Paying for success
Last year was a thrilling ride for PAL. Among the schools in the district facing sanctions under No Child, PAL was the only school that managed to meet federal standards.
Spence and his teachers pressed and cajoled their students, dangling cash, bicycles and other prizes as incentives. He set up an elite club called Team Success, which recognizes students and dispenses gifts quarterly for keeping a 3.0 grade-point average. He paid students $50 for earning a passing FCAT grade, $75 for the level after and $100 for scoring at the highest level. The cash came from a couple of wealthy donors who wanted to “give back” to the system, Spence says.
Students jokingly conspire to clean out his wallet. But the cash incentives can only go so far.
The challenge is to get students to change their attitudes about themselves, Spence notes.
After all, it’s no secret that they know how people on the outside see them and the school, say teachers and students alike.
PAL was a school for troubled kids who would never make it.
“Outside the school gates, a lot of them think they can’t do this,” Spence said. “They have to believe in themselves more than they’ve ever believed in themselves.”
Spence goes to lengths to reinforce that. When students say they don’t like the lunchroom food, he changes the menu.
When it’s time to take the FCAT, he makes students dress up in their Sunday best. He hired a barber to give students free cuts, and he replaced uniforms and shoes. If students did well, they earned trips to the mall.
These tactics raise eyebrows among some educators, but Spence and his staff are unapologetic.
“Charter schools give you the freedom to use different strategies to improve academic success,” he says.
Analisa Araiza, who has three children and a nephew at PAL, doesn’t see anything wrong with the cash incentives.
Lots of parents are strapped for cash — almost 73 percent of the PAL Academy’s 125 students were on free and reduced lunch last year. They see these incentives as beneficial, she says. It drives home the value of a hard-earned dollar.
“They (the students) worked hard for it,” Araiza said. “It’s not money or bribery, it’s a reward.”
Will they make it?
This year, Spence threw in another lure — a $1,000 cash bonus for the school’s entire staff — if the school manages to bump their grade from a C to a B. It’s $2,000 each if they get an A.
That’s the ultimate goal, he says.
“We’re coming from the complete bottom and going to the complete top,” he said.
For Miss M, this year’s third-graders have been a challenge.
Though she had one fewer student than last year, half of her 18 students are labeled special ed, and half are first-time third-graders.
That means half of them haven’t repeated a grade and are younger.
“They’re more immature, and they don’t have as much stamina,” she noted.
That also meant that what worked with last year’s students hasn’t this year. She had to change they way she teaches.
There are more hands-on math and word games, the little pieces of colored paper she spends her evenings and weekends cutting out and putting in Ziploc bags.
She made her weaker students coach each other, and that helped boost confidence. Goals for the class are constantly on the whiteboard, and each student keeps a card that reminds them of what they need to score on their tests.
“We want to replicate last year as close as possible,” she vowed.
Some students already feel the jitters of the fight to come next week. Jarod Levy, 8, worries that he’ll forget what he learned in class. It’s his first FCAT, and he knows he’s on the verge of passing both reading and math.
“I’m always right there,” he said.
Dortavien, for one, is ready. The FCAT doesn’t faze him.
“We do harder stuff in class,” he said.
He’s aiming for $150 from Spence, money that he wants to give his mother to help out with household expenses.
Luz Sosa, 8, isn’t that nervous, either.
“I already took lots of tests,” she said. “I think I can do it. I think I can pass the FCAT.”
— This story was based on visits to the Police Athletic League Academy between May 2008 and March 2009, interviews with PAL charter board members, Manatee County school district officials, teachers and students. Demographic information and test scores were obtained from the school district and the Florida Department of Education.
Sylvia Lim, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041.